Biodiversity Observatory – social networking for natural history

I’m heavily involved in the Biodiversity Observatory project. It’s part of Open Air Laboratories (OPAL), a huge (£12m) project funded by the Big Lottery Fund with ambitious goals to develop and engage a whole new generation of environmentalists. We’re not supposed to create a big media splash about OPAL yet until our media team are in place so we can make a very big deal about it, but I’m sure a little blog post here and there is worth it. The project includes the Natural History Museum, the National Biodiversity Network, the Field Studies Council, Imperial College and many others. There’ll be a network of regional activities to draw people in, led by regional universities.

I’m working with two of my colleagues – Will and Richard – who have blogged about this already. Will recently discussed the reputation management system, as did Richard. Richard’s entire blog is about the development of the site, plus the Evolution Megalab which is strongly linked.

Our job is to specify, develop and test the Biodiversity Observatory site. The tagline is that it’s a social networking site for Natural History. The aim is to draw in people who are interested in – say – the butterflies in their garden – and connect them up with a learning community, some appropriate resources, and the expert society for the area.

It’s a really interesting project. It’ll be big, too. With my professional hat on, there’s the social networking side, and the intersection of informal and formal learning. The mass audience will be very much learning-for-fun people, but there will be two OU courses to link up with it: a short level 1 course on Neighbourhood Nature, and bigger second-level course on biodiversity. And there’s the chance to play a small, indirect role in helping to save the planet, which is always a nice to have thing on a project.

Today I was talking to Richard about what we should use as the platform for the site. We’ve ruled out building it from scratch (the timetable is too short), and even building it in a framework like Symfony would be a huge job. We want something open, and we strongly prefer PHP. We are probably going to go for a more full-featured open source project that does most of what we want out of the box, and as Richard says, we are looking at Elgg very closely at the moment. We’re also considering things like Drupal or WordPress, or CMSes like e107 and Joomla! (which! reminds! me! of! Yahoo! coverage! in! The! Register!). And even Moodle, but that’s looking very unlikely.

So it’s interesting that today saw the announcement of two new offerings that could be relevant.

The first is Google Sites, which seems at a glance to be yet-another site-building-site, but has Google momentum and some of the Google Nature so isn’t to be dismissed entirely out of hand.

The second is Wikia has released some of its social networking tools, which sit inside Mediawiki, the wiki software behind Wikipedia and a host of other community-edited sites.


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

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